• Press Release

Greece: Must stop treating migrants as criminals

March 27, 2011

Amnesty International Says Greece Must Stop Treating Migrants as Criminals

July 27, 2010

The Greek authorities should immediately review their policy of locking up irregular migrants and asylum-seekers, including many unaccompanied children, Amnesty International said in a new report today.

Greece: Irregular migrants and asylum-seekers routinely detained in substandard conditions, documents their treatment, many of whom are held in poor conditions in border guard stations and immigration detention centers with no or limited access to legal, social and medical aid.

"Asylum-seekers and irregular migrants are not criminals. Yet, the Greek authorities treat them as such disregarding their rights under international law," said Nicola Duckworth, Europe and Central Asia Program Director. "Currently, migrants are detained as a matter of course, without regard whether such measure is necessary. Detention of asylum-seekers and migrants on the grounds of their irregular status should always be a measure of last resort."

Greek law makes irregular entry into and exit out of the country a criminal offense. Detention prior to deportation can last for up to six months in Greece for asylum-seekers and irregular migrants. Greek law also makes irregular entry into and exit out of the country a criminal offence.

Tens of thousands of migrants arrive in Greece each year. The vast majority of them reach the country through the Greek-Turkish land and sea borders. They are mostly Afghan, Somali, Palestinian, Iraqi, Eritrean, Pakistani and Burmese.

"After an often hazardous journey, migrants end up in detention centers without access to a lawyer, interpreters or social workers," said Duckworth. "As a result, their circumstances are not assessed correctly and many in need of international protection may be sent back to the places they have fled, while others may be deprived of appropriate care and support."

Irregular migrants and asylum-seekers are not informed about the length of their detention or about their future. They can be kept for long periods of time in overcrowded facilities with unaccompanied minors being detained among the adults. Those detained have limited access to medical assistance and hygiene products.

Few asylum-seekers and irregular migrants are recognized as refugees by the Greek authorities. From the more than 30,000 asylum applications examined in 2009, only 36 were granted refugee protection status while 128 were granted subsidiary protection status.

In the vast majority of detention facilities visited by Amnesty International delegates, conditions ranged from inadequate to very poor. Those detained told Amnesty International of instances of ill-treatment by coastguards and police.

Length and poor conditions of detention provoked irregular migrants and asylum-seekers to stage protests in Venna, north-east Greece in February 2010. Likewise, in April 2010, irregular migrants went on hunger strike on the island of Samos to protest their length of detention.

"Detention cannot be used as a tool to control migration," Duckworth said. "The onus is on the authorities to demonstrate in each individual case that such detention is necessary and proportionate to the objective to be achieved and that alternatives will not be effective."

Amnesty International believes the plans being developed by the Greek authorities to establish screening centers should include alternative approaches such as those running open or semi-open centers for those arriving in the country.

The authorities need to ensure that irregular migrants and asylum-seekers arriving at those centers have access to free legal assistance and interpreters in languages they understand, and medical assistance.


A family of asylum-seekers from Afghanistan was arrested in December 2008 for attempting to leave Greece with false documents. The criminal court gave the adults a suspended six-month sentence, a €3,000 ($3,894.27 in US dollars) fine, and ordered their judicial deportation. The family was reported to have been tried in the absence of a lawyer or an interpreter. They were detained for four months under reportedly poor conditions, and the mother and daughter were subsequently separated from the rest of the family. The family did not manage to apply for asylum until their transfer from the border guard station, where they were detained for four months, to the prison facilities. They remained in detention for 15 months (they were released in March 2010), solely for the purpose of effecting the mother’s judicial deportation.

S., a 16-year-old Afghan unaccompanied minor, arrived in Greece in November 2009. He was arrested in Athens in mid-November and convicted for possession of a weapon after the police reported finding a small knife with him. The police authorities had registered S. as an adult (aged 26) and he was tried as an adult and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment and a fine. He was detained with adults both as part of his prison sentence and later while waiting for deportation until the beginning of January 2010. His country of origin was registered as Iran instead of Afghanistan. S. told Amnesty International that he had told the authorities his real age from the start. S. also said that he had not been provided with a lawyer during his trial, and was unable to contact his family from prison because he had no money to buy a phone card. S. was released at the end of December 2009 and issued with an official notice requesting him to leave the country within 30 days.